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In 2018, three women say they were victims of workplace racial and sexual harassment at Vin Di Bona Productions, best known for America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Their March 19 Los Angeles County Court filing against VDB and its digital-focused offshoot, FishBowl Worldwide Media, seeks damages for wrongful termination, harassment, retaliation and emotional distress. The anonymous plaintiff trio’s claims encompass both the allegedly inappropriate actions as well as a culture of purported reprisal. They are requesting a jury trial.
“We take the allegations that have been made very seriously,” says VDB’s attorney, David E. Fink of Venable. “Our first and highest priority is making sure that all of our employees feel safe and respected in the workplace at all times. We are thoroughly investigating the facts underlying these disturbing allegations.”
Jane Roe 1, then a senior manager of digital content at the company, asserts a pattern of racist behavior. Among other complaints, she says one superior, vp business development and strategy Philip Shafran, repeatedly made stereotypical comments about her race (she is black), including about how even he was “blacker” than her, because she hadn’t yet seen Black Panther. In another instance, she describes a company event attended by other industry executives. By her account, another supervisor announced her name from the podium, joking, “Stop doing blow in the bathroom, crack whore,” and remarked, “You’re never going to develop” any shows for the company, because “there’s no basketball show to make.”
Roe 1 alleges she reported the harassment to company management, “many of whom were present at the event,” and days later she was terminated, told her job had been eliminated. Yet she claims at that time the company was hiring for at least one position with the same job duties as that of Roe 1, in addition to other positions for which she was qualified.
Shortly afterward, another unidentified plaintiff employee — Jane Roe 2 — says Shafran sexually assaulted her while demonstrating an Oculus Rift game with the door closed in his office. She contends that, while utilizing the VR device, she noticed he’d become quiet and stood immediately behind her. She took the headset off and turned around, where she says she observed his cell phone in his hand, and became convinced he was using it to take pictures up her skirt, especially after he quickly returned to his desk and, the court filing notes, “threw his phone down on the desk face down.”
“Pending the results of the [VDB] investigation, Philip Shafran has been placed on administrative leave effective immediately,” Fink says.
Roe 2 reported what happened to her upper management, who eventually told her they investigated and found no wrongdoing. She says she filed a report with the LAPD on July 31 and later told a co-worker, Jane Roe 3, about the incident, asking for help in minimizing contact with Shafran. Roe 3 took action to ensure Roe 2 did not have meetings alone with him.
Roe 3 later told her own supervisor that she herself was struggling to work with Shafran, given what she believed had occurred. At this point Roe 3 was called in by other company officials and told that surfacing and circulating a “rumor” about Shafran could be grounds to sue her for defamation. At this point, Roes 2 and 3 said they felt unsafe and would need to resign. They were terminated from the company the next day, Oct. 3.
In November, when determining why she hadn’t received her final paycheck, Roe 2 claims she discovered that the company had moved her from a salaried employee status to that of an hourly employee sometime in July — a move done in anticipation, she believes, of terminating her after pressing for further action against Shafran.
The eponymous Vin Di Bona, who runs the company and also serves as chair of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is not specifically designated as a defendant in the initial filing, although the plaintiffs noted they might name further individuals in the future.
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